Gems of the Mediterranean

Dreaming of a sojourn on a Mediterranean island? You could join the rush to big and bustling Sicily, Sardinia, Crete or Capri. Or you could consider these lesser-known little gems.



On the narrow waterfront promenade around the horseshoe harbour of tiny Kastellorizo, old Greek ladies dressed head to toe in black stop for a chat beside a group of men playing the universal boardgame tavli on a rickety table. A typical Greek village scene. But hang on a minute – these quintessential old Greek folk chattering away in their native language suddenly switch to broad Australian English. Mate, it turns out they are Kassies – children of Kastellorizo who were shipped to Perth after World War II. During the war, the British evacuated everyone to Egypt to dodge German bombs but in 1944 a huge fuel-dump explosion left the town and half its houses derelict. So instead of returning, most of the island population emigrated en masse to Perth. Now the Kassies and their offspring are returning, restoring houses as holiday homes and setting up businesses. There’s an Australia Square, A Kaz Bar and a SydneyRestaurant where I watch two young Kassies from Perth get married.

Kastellorizo is the most remote of the GreekDodecaneseIslands. In fact it’s much closer to Turkey than Greece. The town of Kos, in Asiatic Turkey, is a couple of kilometers away, whereas the closest Greek territory is the large island of Rhodes, 100kms to the east. Ferries run from both places to Kastellorizo.



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Arrival in Symi is the perfect Greek island experience. The harbour is a deep cove coloured that infinite, unfathomable blue peculiar to the Mediterranean. The waterfront is edged with tiled-roof buildings in tones of ochre, terracotta and cream. Shops sell sea sponges – until about a century ago, diving for sponges was the economic mainstay – and restaurants serve the local delicacy, Symi shrimp. A hefty stone staircase up the cliff leads to a second little town, Ano Symi, and the town’s museum. Symi was occupied by Turkey, Italy, Germany and Britain in the first half of the 20th century, before becoming Greek again in 1948. (A travel book called Bus Stop Symi, by William Travis, tells the tale.) A monastery on the opposite side of the island is the main tourist attraction. Symi is busier than Kastellorizo, being a mere 40kms on the ferry from Rhodes, but still quiet compared to most Greek islands. It shares with Kastellorizo the fact that it is closer to Turkey than Greece, although the two are 250kms apart. Ferries from Rhodes serve both islands.



procida procida 2Greece doesn’t have a monopoly on little-and-lovely Mediterranean islands. Off the coast of southern Italy are the FlegreanIslands which include the international playground of Capri, and the almost as popular – especially with Germans – island of Ischia. Just north of Ischia is the smallest island in the Flegrean group, Procido. A mere 4kms square, it lacks the thermal springs which attract the lolling tourists to spas on Ischia, and the stunning cliffs, the enormous wealth, and the Blue Grotto which attract everyone from everywhere to Capri. But Procido has charm: pastel houses in pink, white, yellow and blue; the scent of lemons; fishermen mending nets. There are beaches, walks, quaint towns, and a movie-making history which has led to an annual arthouse film festival. Il Postino:The Postman was filmed here, as was The Talented Mr Ripley.  Procido is reached by ferry from Naples or Ischia.



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Not so little, but still a gem, Elba is 15km off the coast of Tuscany, 250km north of Rome. I’m told it’s to be avoided in July and August when half the population of the Italian capital arrives, but late-May it is peaceful, beautiful, and full of quirks. From the U-shaped harbour protected by twin fortresses, an arch in a medieval wall opens to the town of Portoferraio. Today it is bursting with Fiat Bambinos, although that’s not a name these drivers recognise. Here the Fiat 500 is simply the beloved Cinquecento, and I’ve stumbled into a rally of the Cinquecento Club Italia which has 20,000 members. Fix It Again Tony is not a joke I’m prepared to risk on these frenetic Fiat-lovers. All is peaceful up the hill at Napoleon’s villa. The emperor was exiled here in 1814, a year before he met his Waterloo. While here, he designed a still-working sewerage system for Elba. He also left the world’s word-lovers with a great palindrome sentence. (A palindrome is a word or sentence that reads the same backwards as forwards.) When he first saw the beautiful island, Napoleon apparently said Able was I ere I saw Elba. Visitors can fly or take a ferry to Elba.